Cal Pep is a bar near the old port in Barcelona that is the shape of a shoebox and not much bigger. On the old zinc counter, the saucers of clams with ham clatter down like a drum roll. Pep himself, husky-voiced, arms crossed over his magnificent paunch, beams as the regulars tuck in. He proudly insists that he invented the dish.
He didn’t, of course. Northerners have a distaste for combining meats from different environments as though it was a form of miscegenation—we don’t do surf and turf. But across southern Europe and in Asia people know that flesh, especially that of pigs, can marry fish very happily. The Portuguese porco à alentejana is typical: cockles or clams steamed with pork fillet and tomatoes under high pressure in a hinged copper vessel, the cataplana, that looks like a flying saucer from the 1950s.
But I prefer the simple complexity of Pep’s clams with ham—in Catalan, cloïses amb pernil. It is, in its way, a profound thing. The two different salty-sweetnesses, of cured ham and clams, combine to make something bigger than their parents—especially with some parsley, a little chilli, a glass of cold fino and good white bread for blotting those complicated juices.
The secret, Pep says, is sautéing just for a minute or two, using the best Iberico ham and the little bivalves known as quahogs in North America and carpet clams in Britain. But they must, Pep says, be baby clams—whether it’s tiny fish or the youngest meat and veg, Iberians are dreadful infanticides when it comes to ingredients. It’s a crime that is not hard to tolerate. ~ Alex Renton